Google opened its web application store for Chrome browser users on Tuesday, offering highly interactive, graphically rich applications from a variety of sources, including National Public Radio, Amazon, Electronic Arts and Sports Illustrated.

Google also provided an update on its Chrome operating system, saying that the first netbooks running the OS will come in the first half of next year from Acer and Samsung.

Meanwhile, Google announced a new technology called Crankshaft that will accelerate the performance of Javascript applications on the Chrome browser, which today has about 120 million active users.

The announcements were made at a press conference at which CEO Eric Schmidt and Vice President of Product Management Sundar Pichai appeared.

Schmidt called cloud computing a journey "we've been talking about for a long time" in reference to the Chrome browser, operating system and application store, which have all been built specifically for online use.

The Chrome Web store will open to users today. "We expect the number of available apps to grow very rapidly," Pichai said.

Amazon officials demonstrated two applications. One lets users browse and search the Amazon.com inventory, while the other is designed specifically for the Kindle device. Also demonstrated were a Pogo game from EA, and versions of The New York Times and NPR websites.

Chrome OS

The Chrome OS, which is still in development, has been designed for netbooks that are constantly connected to the Internet. To that end, all Chrome OS netbooks will ship with both Wi-Fi and 3G connectivity options.

The 3G connectivity will be provided via a partnership with Verizon, which will offer various plans, including day passes and monthly subscriptions. Verizon will not require long-term contracts.

Pichai also detailed a number of security features for Chrome OS that he said will make it "the most secure consumer OS that's ever been shipped." They include features like sandboxing, default encryption and verified booting.

Officials from Citrix demonstrated a tool called Receiver that lets Chrome OS users access, via a browser, legacy enterprise applications including software from Microsoft and SAP.

Google also announced a pilot programme for Chrome OS netbooks. Initial participants include American Airlines, Kraft, Virgin America, Cardinal Health and the US Department of Defense. These organisations will test Chrome OS netbooks for use by their employees.

Google will also hold a similar pilot programme for consumers interested in trying out prototype netbooks, which will feature a 12.1-inch display, full-size keyboard, oversized clickable touchpad and battery life of more than eight hours for active use and more than a week in standby mode.

"With Chrome OS, we have developed a viable third choice for desktop operating systems," Schmidt said.

It's a good move by Google to launch the enterprise pilot program for Chrome OS netbooks, said IDC analyst Al Hilwa. "You get traction for your platform by aggressively selling it to specific enterprises, so that there's group adoption," he said.

Securing assent

The biggest challenge for Google will be to prove to these prospective enterprise customers that their data and back-end systems will be safe when accessed by these Chrome OS devices, Hilwa said.

Even when working with those enterprises that buy into the concept, Google shouldn't expect them to dump their existing operating system platforms, Hilwa said.

"You won't hear a lot of companies going wholesale from Windows to Chrome OS any time soon, but rather trying Chrome OS for certain segments of their workforces. That's the best scenario Google can hope for at this point," he said.

Industry analyst Greg Sterling, from Sterling Market Intelligence, found Google's enterprise pitch for Chrome OS devices surprisingly convincing.

Originally, the perception of Chrome OS devices was that they would be "second machines" used for very specific purposes, primarily to browse the Web and use online apps, he said.

However, the enterprise potential was a revelation to him. "I can see how many IT managers would consider these machines attractive, assuming that they are relatively low-cost, to be deployed in a variety of situations," Sterling said.

In fact, Chrome OS devices could anchor Google's enterprise strategy by bringing together its other components, such as Google Apps and the Google Apps Marketplace. "This is a much more viable machine than I originally thought," he said.

Crankshaft

The Crankshaft technology, described by Google as a "compilation infrastructure," has been designed specifically to improve the way the Chrome browser engine, called V8, executes complex Javascript code.

Google is also improving the way the Chrome browser renders complex graphics, such as full-motion animation, by adding hardware acceleration features via WebGL technology that offload processing to the system's CPU, said Brian Rakowski, Google product management director.

To make the browser more secure, Google is also extending its sandbox protection to plug-ins, he said.